by Kaira M. Cabañas*
We can probably say that moral questions have always arisen when moral norms of behavior have ceased to be self-evident and unquestioned in the life of a community.
–Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, 1963
The question today is how … to articulate intelligence and love.
–Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Letter to a Friend,” 2011
The main floor of the Fridericianum was a curatorial tour de force. The two ground floor-wings were basically empty (filled with Ryan Gander’s “gentle breeze”). As a result, when one arrived at the building’s rotunda the exhibited work emerged with an almost mysterious intensity. First in a viewer’s line of sight were Giorgio Morandi’s still lifes. For me, Morandi’s work responds to curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev’s desire for “a slower form of time—the time of materials”. Morandi’s work allegorizes a phenomenological perspective, one in which the body informs perception but the object also acts upon the subject. His paintings perform this phenomenological constitution of worlds, while such a painterly conceit is simultaneously laid bare through the actual display of Morandi’s painted objects. The “Bactrian Princesses” (2500–1500BC) were equally compelling, bespeaking an ethics of care by virtue of their survival and the evocation of the body’s vulnerability through their precarious construction (the figures are made from stone elements loosely slotted in place). Other works and objects on display included several editions of Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed and the remains of objects from the National Museum in Beirut. The curator called the space of the rotunda the “brain” of the exhibition, and indeed it offered a network of various conceptual and material genealogies and histories (often related to armed struggle) through which to think the other work on display and the exhibition as a whole.
The question of the body was addressed both obliquely and head-on in various works, often through the lens of traumatic history. Kader Attia’s Repair of the Occident to Extra-Occidental Cultures presented a maze of repaired African artifacts, colonial texts, busts of disfigured faces, all juxtaposed to a slide show of World War I soldiers’ injured faces and mended African masks. The installation was a disquieting display of the body’s materiality and multiple significations: from art to scarification, from war to ornament. Other works, rather than refer back to historical trauma from the vantage of the present, were created in conditions of oppression and war. In this vein, the accumulation of apples painted by the Bavarian priest and gardener Korbinian Aigner are exemplary. Between 1912 and the 1960s, he created postcard-sized apple paintings; approximately 400 were included in the exhibition. Interned at Dachau due to his anti-Nazi beliefs, Aigner developed a new apple sort for each consecutive year of his four-year imprisonment. The work speaks to private commitment and resilience in the face of trauma, and it does so through formal and scientific means.
What I found particularly recurrent in the work included in the exhibition was the question of the subject of ethics as a subject for art. Many works in dOCUMENTA (13) approached how a subject is instituted, what norms operate and inform behavior but also how certain norms define who is and who is not a subject. I am thinking here, in particular, of Javier Tellez’s Artaud’s Cave and Jérôme Bel’s Disabled Theater, a choreographed performance in which he worked with mentally disabled actors from the Theater Hora in Zurich. Such works were also framed historically in relation to the history of an institution in Kassel: the nearby 12th century monastery, Breitenau, became a concentration camp, a girls’ reformatory, and now functions as a World War II memorial site and psychiatric clinic.
The question of what constitutes a subject brings me, albeit indirectly, to the performance titled Testimonio (Testimony) by Aníbal López. If the other works in the exhibition drew attention to frameworks of recognition about who qualifies as a subject, López’s work seemed at odds with such an ethical stance. For those readers who might not have heard about the performance (and, indeed, many colleagues that I spoke to were unaware of the performance), in it López interviews a contract killer from his home country, Guatemala, and then opens the performance to questions from the audience. The killer was veiled behind a screen and thus seen only in silhouette, while the audience was recorded in video and ultimately represented fully in view. (The video was subsequently installed in the Neue Galerie.) For me, the work (which I refused to see) raises challenging ethical questions. The performance constitutes a spectacle of confession in which the audience might condemn the killer’s actions, but due to the performance’s structure, at the same time displaces any recognition of his victims, who remain abstract. Moreover, one “lesson” contemporary viewers might take away is: “ah yes, contract killers are just par for the course in a place like Guatemala.” In the worst case, someone could actually be killed. Testimonio’s inclusion in the exhibition evinces a failure on the part of the dOCUMENTA (13) organizers to think through how lives might be at risk. That is, there was a public, albeit small, from Guatemala who attended dOCUMENTA (13); each individual felt both appalled and threatened that the killer might identify them upon their return home.
It follows that the performance forgoes the demands of cultural translation and forecloses the recognition of common vulnerability through which we might—along the lines of a thinker like Judith Butler—begin to productively think forms of recognition and visibility in the age of globalization and within the frames of war. In the face of such a performance, perhaps we need to give an account of ourselves (to evoke Butler again) in order to question the self-evidence with which we accept as artistic practice what is introduced within its framework. With Testimonio, it seems that a juridical framework would have been in order, rather than an artistic one, on whose private and public funding the success of the contract killer’s performance depended.
And then there were the works by artists that I love to love: Hannah Ryggen’s anti-fascist tapestries, Anna Maria Maiolino’s serial repetition of objects and use of sound, Pierre Huyghe’s exploration of the natural and man-made, Haris Epaminonda and Daniel Gustav Cramer’s The End of Summer installation, Tacita Dean’s chalk drawings, and Tino Sehgal’s variations in the dark.
*Kaira M. Cabañas is Director of the MA in Modern Art: Critical and Curatorial Studies program at Columbia University.